‘Before Bruce Lee, There Were Just No Asian American Heroes’

The PBS series Asian Americans, in the episode titled Good Americans, gives screen time to that legendary actor and martial arts fighter Bruce Lee, highlighting his importance in American culture when he emerged in the 1960s.

Writer Jeff Chang, who is currently at work on a biography about Bruce Lee, had this to say about Lee’s rise to stardom in Episode 3 of Asian Americans:

Jeff Chang: The culture is waiting for this moment to shift on its axis. We needed to have at that particular moment somebody who epitomizes the search for truth, for justice. We needed to have somebody who was going to stand up for us.

Before Bruce Lee, there were just no Asian American heroes. For Asian Americans, there was a sense of, finally. Finally there’s somebody up on the screen who is as strong as we are. Somebody that embodies the kind of power you know that we’re capable of.

The celebrity Randall Park of Fresh Off The Boat surely spoke for millions when he put into words just how much Bruce Lee meant to him growing up:

Randall Park: I first saw a Bruce Lee movie when I was a kid, super young, and I remember just being mesmerized by this guy. And I don’t think it was because he was Asian, because he had an Asian face. It was just because he had so much charisma and confidence. I was obsessed with him. I watched his movies over and over again and afterwards wanted to fight my brother, because I wanted to be him.

You can watch the full (but brief) segment on Bruce Lee at the end of Episode 3, Good Americans, for the PBS series Asian Americans (available only to viewers in the US for free streaming until June 9, 2020):

Filipino, Mexican Farmworkers Marry, Join 1965 Grape Strike in California

The PBS series Asian Americans highlights an unusual marriage in the mid-20th century: A Filipino man and Mexican woman who met in the fields as farmworkers tied the knot. More than a decade later, in 1965, along with their entire family, they joined the Delano Grape Strike.

Lorraine Agtang, daughter of the two, tells the story of her parents and family in Episode 4, Generation Rising, of Asian Americans:

I’m half Filipino, and half Mexican. My father met my mother working in the fields, and he didn’t speak Spanish and she didn’t speak English, and so my father learned how to speak Spanish so that he could get to know her.

I was born in a labor camp a mile and a half from Delano. It was a two-bedroom barrack bunkhouse. We all slept together. There were seven of us, and then my mom and dad.

The bathroom was out back, which we shared with two other families, so, uh, you get to know your neighbors well.

Such a pairing was exceptional at the time among the community of Filipino men who served as farmworkers, as explained in the series:

Narrator: Very few Filipino women were able to immigrate to the US, and Filipino men were barred from marrying white women. As a result, an entire generation is forced to live out their lives as bachelors deprived of family.

But not Lorraine’s father.

Along with her parents and family, Lorraine also took part in the strike, which she recalls in the series:

Lorraine: I remember we were working, when my father says, “Come on, we’re leaving”.

I says, “We’re leaving? It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

So we left.

And I remember leaving the field, and driving through the, seeing the strikers, the Filipinos.

A page about a collection of materials that Lorraine Agtang has left to the University of California – Davis offers more information about her and her parents:

Lorraine Agtang was born in a labor camp near Delano, California on 1952. Agtang is of Mexican and Filipino descent. Her mother, Lorenza Agtang, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. Her father, Platon Agtang, was a migrant worker from Cavite Province in the Philippines, who worked at the sugar fields in Hawaii, canneries in Alaska, and the farmworker circuits throughout Central California. Agtang’s exposure to farm labor activism occurred at an early age, as Agtang and her family left the fields of Chamorro Farms in support of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee during the 1965 Delano Grape Strike.

You can view a clip from the PBS series where Lorraine talks about leaving the fields with her family for the strike:

And, if you’re in the US, you can view the entire episode of Generation Rising from Asian Americans on the PBS site (available for free streaming until June 9, 2020):

Note: Featured photo, with a farmworker, is a screenshot from Generation Rising from Asian Americans on the PBS site.

Moksad Ali, Ella Blackman: 1895 Blasian Marriage in New Orleans, USA

While recently watching the new PBS series Asian Americans, which premiered earlier this month, I learned about a fascinating couple — an Indian immigrant to the US named Moksad Ali, who married an African American named Ella Blackman in 1895 in New Orleans, USA.

According to Vivek Bald, an associate professor of writing and digital media at MIT with an interest in the South Asian diaspora in the US, Moksad Ali represents one of the earliest migrations of South Asian immigrants to the East Coast — people who were mainly Muslim men who hailed from the Hooghly region north of Calcutta and worked as silk traders.

As Bald noted in the first episode in the series Asian Americans:

Vivek: The peddler network in some ways has gone under the radar because that group was so transient. The majority of men who were peddling would come during the summer months to New Jersey to the seaside resorts and then make their way south to winter tourist towns. Moksad Ali was one of the earliest to settle in New Orleans.

Moksad Ali and the other peddlers, in order to sell their goods, they played up their South Asian-ness, their Indian-ness. They played to the fantasies of the exotic East that the tourists who they were selling to expected.

At the end of the day, however, they were dark-skinned men in a deeply segregated society. And the places were they were able to live, build homes, marry and begin families were within African American communities.

In this case, Moksad Ali married Ella Blackman, as Bald described in his book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America:

Moksad Ali settled in New Orleans around the same time as Jainal Abdeen and married a local African American woman, Ella Blackman. Ella’s family had come to New Orleans from other parts of the South in the years before and after the Civil War. Her father’s side came from Tennessee, her mother’s from Virginia. Moksad and Ella married in May 1895, when Ella was seven months pregnant with their first child, Monzure. On Monzure’s July 12 birth certificate, Moksad Ali listed his occupation as “silk merchant” and penned a clear but labored signature in Roman/English cursive letters.

In the series Asian Americans, Vivek Bald also builds on the story of Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman by speaking with the descendents of the couple, including in this exchange:

Robin (Descendant): I can recall my grandmother telling me a story about when they were small that her and her dad and mother went to New York on the train. The kids and the father was all allowed to sit up in the front of the train, but my grandmother had to sit in the back and she said, well, it wasn’t that she looked black. It was the fact that they knew she was black.

I said, well that’s odd because some of the kids’ skin complexion is darker than my grandmother’s. So, I thought that was really weird, but…

Vivek: Moksad was darker than your grandmother.

Robin: Right.

Watch a portion of the Moksad Ali-Ella Blackman story in this clip from the PBS series Asian Americans:

Or, view the entire segment on Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman in the first episode of Asian Americans (video only available to viewers in the US):

What do you think about the story of Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman?